Thursday, February 26, 2015

Charting historical trajectories

Is the United States at the apogee of its power and prosperity?

That question presupposes that history is dynamic and not static. Hoping that an aspect of life or existence will attain equilibrium, as I often do, is generally pointless. The cosmos is dynamic. Careful examination of anything reveals a dynamism; periods of waning inexorably follow periods of waxing, seen in the cycles of the moon, life that moves from youthful energy to the tiredness of old age, etc. In total, the cosmos appears to move toward entropy, the dissipation of its energy.

Correctly discerning the direction of flow can provide an individual with life-giving information, e.g., knowing the tide tables can help a skipper avoiding grounding her or his vessel.

Is the United States at the apogee of its power and prosperity?

Several indicators suggest that the US has passed its apogee and now heads toward an inevitable decline:

  • The apparent increase in the political influence of the wealthy and the growing economic disparity between the wealthy and the poor suggest that a plutocracy may be pushing democracy aside. Something similar happened in ancient Rome. Democracy engenders innovation, energy, and loyalty that a plutocracy cannot match.
  • US global hegemony, perhaps at its peak at the end of the Cold War, seems certain to decline as China's economy overtakes the US economy in size, with India's economy poised to follow suit.
  • Chinese and Indian citizens, who are less assured of affluence and therefore have less to lose, are more likely to push for greater democracy; US citizens appear willing to trade security and comfort for freedom. They may also be more willing to take risks, and therefore to be more creative and prolific inventors and entrepreneurs than US citizens.
  • The huge and relatively constant proportion of the US gross domestic product tied to wasteful defense spending. The US spends a higher percentage of its total economic output on defense than does any other state and yet faces less of an existential threat, because of its geography, population, and excessive military strength than do most other states. Meanwhile, the US underfunds both the effective education of its citizens and investment in critical infrastructure.
  • The credence given to superstition and myth, with a concurrent disregard of science, is glaringly manifest in unnecessary death and contagion (e.g., the silly ideas, which have no scientific basis, that measles vaccine can cause autism or that humans are not the result of evolutionary processes). No allegedly developed nation is more handicapped in these ways than is the US, handicaps that appear to be increasing instead of diminishing.

Not all indicators are negative:

  • Lower oil prices, especially if coupled with increased reliance on alternative energy sources, may reverse the flow of oil wealth from petroleum importing states (e.g., the US) to oil exporters (e.g., OPEC members). If the US becomes a net oil exporter, that might also reverse the flow of US wealth. Rapidly growing Chinese demand for oil could magnify the positive effects of these trends for the US.
  • To the extent that the US becomes a more just society (think of increasing racial justice, increasing equality for women, and diminishing gender bias), the odds of US democracy continuing to survive improve.

History is rarely linear, i.e., history rarely moves in a consistent direction. Short-term reversals do not necessarily presage a long-term decline. Where do you want the US to go in the future? What can you do to make that future more likely to happen?

Ultimately, the future of the US seems tied to both the future of the world and of the globe. World future connotes the flattening of the world; the futures of all humans are increasingly linked. Our best hope for the future is if competitive nationalism and selfish atavism yield to an emerging awareness of a human community that transcends all differences and respects all people equally. Global future connotes the interdependence of all life. Unless we, and a majority of other humans, accept responsibility for our duties as stewards of nature, we will destroy the planet's ability to sustain human and most other forms of life.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Jesus' descent to the dead

Perhaps you've heard of the bestselling book, The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin Malarkey and his son, Alex. The book purports to recount the son's death after an automobile accident, his going to heaven, and his return to life. This past week, Alex, the young co-author, revealed that the book was a fraud.[1] Ironically, the authors' surname – Malarkey – means nonsense.
Given our awareness of our own mortality, interest in what happens to a person at death is unsurprisingly widespread, perhaps even universal. Christianity asserts a claim similar to the Malarkey's that Alex had visited heaven. The Apostles' Creed, which is part of our liturgy for Holy Baptism as well as for Morning and Evening Prayer, declares that he (i.e., Jesus) descended to the dead. In prior versions of the Book of Common Prayer, preserved in Rite I, the wording feels more troubling he descended into hell. What's the origin of this claim? What does it mean?
The primary biblical bases for thinking that the crucified Jesus descended to the dead are a verse in this morning's epistle reading and one in the following chapter. Contemporary English translations of 1 Peter 3:18 describe Jesus going and proclaiming the gospel to those who are in prison. The Greek word is actually hades, incorrectly translated as hell, sometimes translated with accuracy as the place of the dead, and occasionally translated as prison.
The idea that the dead are in prison, presumably awaiting judgment, reflects Jesus having lived during a transitional time in Judaism. Before the second century BC, Judaism taught that a person's life ended at death. During Jesus' lifetime, Jewish thought was divided on this issue. In sharp contrast to those like the Sadducees who held to traditional teachings, the Pharisees, the Qumran community, and others, including the first Christians, believed that a person's existence continued after death.
Secondary biblical bases for the claim that Jesus descended to the place of the dead are allusions to the sign of Jonah in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Jonah's three days of captivity in the fish presage the three days that these gospels report between Jesus' death and resurrection. In the wider cultural and historical context, several Greek, Roman, and Egyptian deities visit the place of the dead; the Qumran scrolls also mention the Messiah visiting the realm of the dead.
Christian preaching has traditionally linked three motifs of enduring importance to the claim that Jesus descended to the place of the dead. First, the claim underscores Jesus' humanity. Jesus' death was no different from the death of any other human. Too often, Christianity has emphasized the deity of the second person of the Trinity at the cost of ignoring his humanity. Saying the Apostles' Creed and declaring that Jesus descended to the dead, affirms that he was a human, just like us.
The second motif tied to the Christian teaching that Jesus descended to the dead is that while in hades Jesus preached to the dead. A wealth of interpretations cluster around this idea. Some have Jesus preaching to fallen angels, some to righteous Jews, some to all of the dead. These interpretations express the confidence, dating almost from Christianity's beginning, that God's salvific work in Christ extends to all creation. In other words, the claim that Jesus visited the dead is a traditional formulation of saying that God welcomes all, that God's love embraces not only humans, but also all living things and all creation. God's love is inclusive and not exclusive. Even as the rainbow is a sign of universal hope, so is Jesus' descent to the place of the dead a sign of universal hope.
The third motif linked to claiming that Jesus descended to the dead is that Jesus defeated the power of death. We can experience this deliverance occurs in the present. Sometimes we, though nominally alive, may feel dead. Life's crises, compounded by the challenge of making sense out of the Christian tradition in a post-modern world, have created a hunger for evidence of God's continuing care and love that the unscrupulous exploit, perhaps explaining the popularity of books such as The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. This sense of being alive yet dead probably contributes to the current popularity of vampires and zombies.
Christianity's good news is that in Christ God defeated the powers of death. In Holy Baptism, a dove alights upon each of us, symbolic of God's Spirit in and with us. And, if we listen carefully, we can hear God communicate, softly but distinctly, not only in Holy Baptism but at other times as well, You are my daughter, my son, my beloved. Death has no more power over you.

[1] Ron Charles, "'Boy Who Came Back from Heaven' actually didn't; books recalled," Washington Post, February 16, 2015.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Supporting our troops

An Ethical Musings' reader suggested that I write a post regarding support for our troops. Previously, I posted some thoughts on this subject in What the Church, and our nation, owe veterans. In this post, I explore three ways in which a nation can best support its active duty troops.

First and most importantly, a nation best supports its active duty military by sending those troops into harm's way only when essential for protecting vital national interests. Vital national interests can be difficult to define. Unfortunately, politicians often employ the phrase without bothering to define it. Vital national interests denote interests that, if not protected, jeopardize a nation's continued existence. This definition generally precludes citing economic factors to justify deploying troops. For example, the repeated US interventions in Latin America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries known as the Banana Wars were all wrong because they benefitted US corporations but were never a response to an existential threat against the US. Protecting or improving the economic well-being of some citizens or businesses is insufficient to justify military missions that pose an existential risk to military personnel, i.e., expecting others to be willing to die to protect my standard of living is morally wrong. Using military force in that manner reduces military personnel to a means to an end that lacks lasting value. This restraint on the use of military force is another way of expressing Just War Theory, the historic Christian perspective on when using military force is morally justifiable. Incidentally, failing to aid another nation or people when it faces an existential threat would also satisfy the test I propose for when using military force is morally justifiable. Left unchecked, evil that destroys another nation or people, as exemplified by Nazi Germany in WWII, will continue to pursue its evil goals until stopped, eventually posing an existential threat to the globe. Stopping genuine existential threats early prevents unnecessary harm to life. Conversely, mislabeling something as an existential threat will often result in increased harm, as occurred with the misguided US invasions and conquests of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Second, a nation supports its active duty personnel by adequately compensating them for their service and the risks they may face. The current military pay system falls short of that standard. We pay junior personnel too little. We promote too many officers, creating bureaucratic bloat and incompetence, because of the up-or-out promotion system. The all-or-nothing retirement system that requires a service member to serve twenty years or leave with no retirement benefit both exploits those who serve a lesser amount of time and needs adjusting to reflect longer life expectancies. Moves to reduce health benefits for military personnel and veterans shift compensation in the wrong direction: military service in peace and combat is hazardous and a nation has a moral obligation to care for those who serve.

Third, a nation best supports its troops when everyone serves (cf. my Ethical Musings' post, Memorial Day). A program of national service in which everyone, regardless of gender or ability, serves would renew commitment to the nation and represent a major investment in the nation's future. I would propose that everyone serve for two years, post-high school. Compensation would be set at the minimum wage. Education deferments would be freely available, but would be just that, a deferment. Upon completion of her/his education, the person would still have the obligation to serve for a year at minimum wage. The advantage in granting deferments is that the nation could reap the benefits of the person's education without having to pay additional compensation, e.g., a doctor would serve as a doctor, but receive the same compensation as someone who served immediately following high school. There is no exploitation in this: those seeking a deferment would know the terms. A parental leave provision would function similar to educational deferments: new parents could take two months off and then return to complete their service, earning the same compensation as everyone else completing national service. Assignments could reflect personal preference, abilities, education, and the needs of the nation. The more professionalized the military becomes, with increasing numbers of career personnel being part of multi-generational military families, the weaker the connection between a nation and its armed forces becomes. The weaker that connection, the more prone a nation is to misuse and to fail to support properly its military.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Choosing a Lenten discipline

My formal study of ethics began with exploring moral decision-making. How do people make moral choices? What rules are important? When, if ever, and on what basis should one make an exception to those rules? A rule-based morality has an attractive simplicity. The process of assembling the evidence and arguments, and then analyzing which choice is the best (or least bad) from among the alternatives, intrigued me. My seminary ethics professors' research and teaching interests were also focused on moral decision-making and moral dilemmas, reinforcing my initial orientation.

However, after a decade of studying, teaching, and preaching about moral decision-making, I realized that my focus was largely misplaced. True ethical dilemmas that require difficult moral decisions occur infrequently. Emphasizing rational deliberation ignores the large and ever-present emotional aspect of a person's moral life. People get into moral difficulty generally because they fail to do what they know is good or right.

Perhaps as much as 95% of human behavior is a function of habit or acquired patterns (Nancey Murphy and Warren S. Brown, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Kindle Loc. 1472-73). Illustratively, I rarely consciously consider whether to tell the truth, to refrain from stealing, to honor my vow of fidelity to my partner, etc. I simply act in habitual ways. And, because cognitive research indicates that conscious thought usually if not always lags non-conscious brain activity, perhaps even the semblance of conscious moral decision-making is just that, illusion rather than a reality.

Consequently, my interest in ethics shifted from moral decision making to virtue ethics. Virtue ethics emphasizes cultivating habits (philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls them practices) that express who I want to be as a person. Virtue ethics aims to shape a person's character such that ethical behavior becomes that individual's habitual way of acting. Christian Ethics, I concluded, consists not of prescribing a set of moral principles but trying to describe a pattern of life that leads to life abundant and human flourishing.

I stopped pondering the question of what Jesus taught and started seeking to know Jesus and how he lived. For example, I stopped trying to reconcile the gospel record of Jesus saying that he came to fulfill the Mosaic Law with the several gospel accounts in which Jesus and his disciples apparently transgressed the Mosaic Law. I began inquiring about the virtues (or habits or practices) that Jesus embodied. Jesus, I recognized, acted in ways that bent or made exceptions to the Law if adhering to the Law (or to its then prevalent interpretation) would have resulted in behaviors that disrespected or devalued persons. In other words, respect for the wellbeing of others was a foundational virtue for Jesus.

In contrast to rule-based ethics, virtue ethics better coheres with our various relationships, a critical insight of feminist ethics. Ethicists such as Immanuel Kant incorrectly contend that a person should act the same toward everyone. In some circumstances, I rightly treat my family differently than I do my friends and my friends differently than I do strangers. Following Jesus' example has implications for all of a person's relationships, but requires us to act in ways appropriate to each relationship.

Admittedly, virtues may evoke conflicting actions. Do I tell the truth and hurt someone's feelings or do I lie to avoid pointlessly inflicting harm? That is not merely a hypothetical query, as fans of the TV show Doc Martin recognize. Doc Martin tends to be ruthlessly honest, disregarding others' feelings. The show is funny precisely because although most of us are usually honest, we routinely lie (intentionally deceive) to avoid hurting another person's feelings. Good character formation has taught us how to reconcile situationally conflicting virtues without needing to weigh choices consciously or to compromise our moral character.

This Lent, try emulating Jesus more fully by giving up or taking on a specific habit or practice. Then, commit to making that habit a daily part of life for the next seven weeks with intentionally expecting the change to become permanent.

A 2013 study at University College London asked 96 participants "to choose an everyday behavior that they wanted to turn into a habit. They all chose something they didn't already do that could be repeated every day; many were health-related: people chose things like 'eating a piece of fruit with lunch' and 'running for 15 minutes after dinner.'" On average, participants required 66 days to form a new habit. As one might expect, some habits (e.g., drinking a glass of water after breakfast) developed quickly (20 days) whereas those forming an exercise habit (e.g., walking 10 minutes after breakfast) required more than twice as many days to form the habit. (J. Dean, Making Habits, Breaking Habits, pp. 3-7)

The Christian life is a journey of becoming. Eugene Peterson memorably described the Christian life as a long obedience in the same direction, phrasing perhaps adapted from a sentence in Chapter 5 of Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Concentrating on developing (or ending!) only one habit each Lent will, over the course of 40, 50, or 70 years, inevitably result in a person who has a much greater resemblance to Jesus.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi (quoted in Bruce Lipton, The Biology of Belief, p. 114):
     Your beliefs become your thoughts
     Your thoughts become your words
     Your words become your actions
     Your actions become your habits
     Your habits become your values
     Your values become your destiny

Thursday, February 12, 2015

What to do about ISIS

I've written a couple of Ethical Musings' posts about ISIS (Yet another immoral war in the Middle East and Defeating ISIS. Since those posts, ISIS has committed a number of high profile atrocities (e.g., immolating a Jordanian pilot) and suffered some military reverses (e.g., lost its battle to keep control of Kobani). ISIS now controls about a third of both Syria and Iraq.

In response, Jordan and several other Arab states, feeling more threatened by ISIS, have stepped up their military efforts against ISIS. President Obama is in the process of seeking Congressional authorization for the use of military force against ISIS and its successor organizations.

Short of total war, only Arabs can defeat ISIS. ISIS is not really an American problem. In spite of ISIS' rhetoric, and extravagant claims by individuals alleging that they have acted on ISIS' behalf, ISIS poses no significant near-term threat to Europe or the United States. ISIS lacks the ability to project power in military actions against either Europe or the US. Projecting power against targets on another continent requires air power (planes and missiles), ships, and expeditionary ground units that ISIS simply does not have. An occasional terrorist attack--and no public, credible evidence of such a threat presently exists--would certainly be an irritant, could seriously harm a relatively small number of victims, and can incite panic among the cowardly. However, an ISIS terror attack would not represent an existential threat against even the smallest European state (e.g., Monaco or Luxembourg), let alone the US, which is the global superpower.

News commentators and politicians who hype the ISIS' threat have aligned themselves, hopefully unintentionally, with ISIS. Inflammatory rhetoric that suggests ISIS poses a real threat to Europe or the US distorts the facts, actually enhances ISIS' global stature, and multiplies many times the adverse consequences of any ISIS terror attack.

European and US voters and legislators should evaluate current claims about the need for, and potential efficacy of, military aid to defeat ISIS in the context of the failed Iraq and Afghanistan wars. First, military assistance provided to Iraq for more than a decade failed to produce effective Iraqi armed forces. Why will another six months or even six years of assistance be successful? ISIS primarily fights with equipment, supplies, and weapons that it has scrounged or purchased on the black market. Ten thousand, even one hundred thousand, US military personnel serving as Iraqi trainers and advisers sets the US on a trajectory parallel to the Vietnam War that will inevitably lead to another defeat.

Second, after receiving billions of dollars of military assistance, the Iraqi armed forces now claim that they are inadequately equipped, a claim I find laughable. The problem is not lack of materiel but lack of motivation and will to win. Nobody can do for the Iraqis what they are unwilling to do for themselves. Iraq's Shiite majority should have a strong incentive to defend themselves and their territory against ISIS, an incentive that ISIS' unrelenting pogroms against Shiites should consistently reinforce. Iraq has a much larger military, with more equipment and funds, than what ISIS' fighters possess.

Third, exclusive reliance on air power has never achieved victory in military conflict. Air power can tip the scale of a tactical engagement but is not strategically decisive. Again, this is a lesson that the US should have learned in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Furthermore, air power is no substitute for Iraqi fighters having the will to win.

Fourth, Congress should debate legislation authorizing the use of military force against ISIS. The legislation should be tightly circumscribed, not open ended like the legislation that authorized the use of military force against al Qaeda. Congress, in public debate, needs to reclaim its Constitutional role as the sole arm of the US government empowered to declare war. Defeating ISIS leaves the Syrian problem unresolved, and perhaps will leave Syria more vulnerable to anti-Israeli and anti-US interests.

Fifth, Iran wants ISIS defeated. Cooperating with Iran to defeat ISIS might introduce a new and more constructive era into Middle Eastern politics.

We should stand with our friends. However, we cannot fight their battles for them and we should not treat them as inferiors unable to win without our aid. ISIS and its ideology of hate and dominance are a losing cause, but only the people most threatened by ISIS--the citizens of Syria, Iraq, and their immediate neighbors--can defeat ISIS.

Monday, February 9, 2015

What size house do you want?

I spent most of my childhood in a relatively large house (not the one shown!). I now live in a house with over 3500 square feet. However, many of my adult, married years I have lived in relatively small dwellings of under 1500 square feet. My recent musings about birth rates, prosperity, and over population have prompted me to ponder the question of how large a house I - or anyone - should want.

Designs of 300 square foot houses intrigue me, though I would not want to live in one. I think it would feel cramped for two people and limit our ability to pursue activities that interest. Similarly, I have occasionally mused about living full-time in a land yacht (aka a recreational vehicle) or aboard a small boat. Neither option has ever held any attraction for my partner; if honest, my musings have more of a romantic than realistic flavor.

Originally, these musings had at least four sources. First, I found the question of whether the Soviet standard of 300 square feet of living space per person interesting. Second, I longed for financial independence and recognized that the less I spent on housing, the sooner I could achieve independence. Third, some of my early parishioners, and my predecessor in my first parish, advocated adopting self-sufficient, back-to-the-land lifestyles. I've never yearned to be a farmer, but have a sufficiently inquisitive mind to toy with the possibility. Fourth, I have a restlessness for adventure and to see what lies over the horizon in common with many of those Europeans who came to America and whose descendants pushed continually West.

More recently, I have struggled to understand why Americans and Europeans so often want to live in a large house. My partner and I wanted to live in a smaller house than we do, but could not find anything smaller of comparable quality and style. Unfortunately, our culture almost invariably defines size as the first attribute of quality, with large being better.

Historically, one reason for large houses was to accommodate a large family, often consisting of multiple, related nuclear families living together in a multi-generational setting. Another reason for having a large house was for the wealthy to accommodate the servant staff required to support that lifestyle. Technology – electric lights, power, and appliances, water and sewer systems, etc. – has made it possible for most people in economically developed states living without even one servant to have a quality of life superior to that enjoyed by the wealthy in the nineteenth century. Yet the cultural legacy of large houses lives on, not only in older homes but also in architectural preferences and expectations. Finally, some individuals want to have a large house to impress other people with their status and affluence, a motive that probably explains many recently built large houses in developed countries. Who needs – or can truly utilize – a house with 7,000 or 10,000 or even more square feet?

The technological shift from the industrial age to the electronic age is further reducing the amount of living space required to support a high standard of living. My first sound system (a childhood legacy) was a Victrola and a stack of records; the next system was a stereo housed in its own cabinet with stacks of LPs; now my music resides on my computer and an IPod. Hundreds of books in my library are digital volumes; I only have digital copies of my photographs and most of the memorabilia I've collected over the years; I have no paper files, only digital ones. The space requirements for televisions, phones, cameras (if you even own one), and other items are similarly shrinking. I can literally live better, in less space and at less cost, than the very wealthiest of prior generations.

I suspect that this trend will continue and that people with large houses will discover that they own dinosaurs for which there is little demand. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm attempting to sell my dinosaur and move to a much smaller, more ecologically friendly domicile. Sometimes good personal financial goals do align with ecological stewardship!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Birth rates, prosperity, and over population – Part 3

How large a human population can the earth sustain? Is population growth essential for sustained economic prosperity? Last month, an Ethical Musings' reader inquired whether the US has enough people to support healthcare and other benefit programs for its aging population. Since then, I've given those questions some thought. This is the second installment of my reflections on those issues; the first installment is available here and some background material here.

Sixth, the real issue is not whether the US can afford to provide the current level of benefits to the elderly (this includes Medicare, Social Security, and other programs) as the US population ages, but what type of economic system and what level of consumption are sustainable, given earth's finite carrying capacity. In Ethical Musings' posts such as Expand Social Security? and The U.S. Social Safety Net I've argued that fixing Social Security for the next century is clearly affordable. Healthcare financing poses more of a problem, but is also manageable. However, addressing those problems is to focus on symptoms and not the underlying problems of ecological sustainability and inherently flawed economic theories. That the symptoms of the problems in the US are actually more easily fixed than in some other countries (e.g., Japan has a much more severe population decline and both India and China have huge pent-up pressure for higher levels of economic prosperity), may unfortunately make it easier for the US to ignore the underlying problems, foreclosing possible longer-term remedies.

Seventh, some economists have actually begun to wonder in public whether we are reaching the point in developed nations where full employment is possible, or even desirable. (The term full employment has never connoted 100% of those wanting work having a paid position because some number, usually thought to be 3-5% of people who want to work, are at any moment transitioning from one job to another. Without some level of unemployment, full employment would trigger unstoppable, wage driven inflation as employers competed with one another for employees.) Some economists are beginning to ponder the limits of earth's carrying capacity, the limits to consumer demand, and the consequences of automation on the demand for labor. Household appliances now do chores in minutes that formerly required hours; robots are replacing workers on assembly lines; etc. If these economists are correct, and I think they are, then people must develop new economic systems to generate and distribute income and wealth.

Eighth, generally, a well-regulated capitalist system outperforms other economic systems because capitalism encourages individual initiative and responsibility while avoiding the impossibility of centrally allocating resources, production, etc. Of course, some enterprises are natural monopolies (e.g., providing emergency healthcare) or oligopolies (e.g., some utilities). Other enterprises function best as communal enterprises, jointly owned and operated, but these tend to be small-scale enterprises in which the owners know, respect, and trust one another. Is yet another alternative economic system better suited to the future than capitalism, communism, monopoly, or socialism? If so, what is that system? If not, what form of capitalism will afford everyone an approximately equal opportunity and incentive to work? Past efforts to limit the number of hours per week that employees can work in order to create more jobs by spreading work equitably among a larger number of people (e.g., in France) have not proven particularly effective or productive. In the next fifty years, I wonder if developed nations will reach a point where they can satisfy economic demand if only a third, or perhaps only a quarter, of their working age population are employed forty or more hours per week. How can we best regulate capitalism so as not to create one class of winners (people who work) and another of losers (those unable to find employment or those who work at menial, minimum wage jobs with no hope of ever joining the winners)?

Ninth: God loves all creation. Rethinking economics should also encourage us to choose an economic system that promotes the well-being of earth and of all its inhabitants. Plant and animal species are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates. The interconnected of all life, if not a conviction that God cares for all of God's creation, should motivate our ecological concern. Choosing to live better with less consumption, treasuring relationships and the life of the mind more than possessions, is consonant with abundant living as understood by both Jesus and Aristotle.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Birth rates, prosperity, and over population – Part 2

How large a human population can the earth sustain? Is population growth essential for sustained economic prosperity? Last month, an Ethical Musings' reader inquired whether the US has enough people to support healthcare and other benefit programs for its aging population. Since then, I've given those questions some thought. Here is the second installment (read the first here) of my efforts to grapple with those issues; the third installment will appear in my next Ethical Musings post.

First, the earth has a limited carrying capacity, i.e., the earth can only sustain so many living things (plants and animals of all types). Malthus had that much right. Improved agricultural techniques, distribution of food and water, and other technological advances have stretched and may further stretch earth's capacity, but limits do exist because the earth consists of a finite set of resources. Except for solar energy from the sun, we have no realistic way of importing any material or resource from elsewhere in meaningful quantities nor are we likely to develop such technology in the next one hundred years.

Second, most of the available data confirms that humans are diminishing the earth's capacity to sustain life. 2014 was the hottest year on record. A scientific study released in January 2015 cites evidence showing that we have already crossed four of nine planetary boundaries: deforestation, level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (both used in fertilizers) into the ocean. (Will Steffen, Katherine Richardson, Johan Rockström, Sarah E. Cornell, Ingo Fetzer, Elena M. Bennett R. Biggs, Stephen R. Carpenter, Wim de Vries, Cynthia A. de Wit, Carl Folke, Dieter Gerten, Jens Heinke, Georgina M. Mace, Linn M. Persson, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, B. Reyers, and Sverker Sörlin, "Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet," Science, 1259855 Published online15 January 2015 [DOI:10.1126/science.1259855].) James Lovelock's 2006 book, The Revenge of Gaia, is a slightly dated but highly readable explanation of how humans have diminished the earth's capacity to sustain life. A crisis point from which there is now return is clearly approaching, though thankfully predictions that we would have reached that crisis point by now have so far proven wrong, e.g., Malthus and the Club of Rome's 1972 report.

Third, current models of economic prosperity incorrectly and unhelpfully presume constantly increasing levels of consumption. Consumption drives production and production generates wealth and income. Japan, the US, and other economically developed nations face economic challenges because their stable or declining populations are not increasing total consumption and thus appear unable to sustain their current prosperity and to meet their financial commitments (pay government debt and promised old age pensions, for example). Furthermore, contrary to accepted economic theory, demand appears to diminish when prosperity passes some level (how many candy bars, coats, condominiums, or consultants does any one individual really desire?). People are now spending more time on mental pursuits (e.g., surfing the internet) that spark less innovation, require less productivity, and generate less consumption.

Fourth, less developed nations in contrast to developed nations have huge unsatisfied demand for economic goods and services. However, producing the good and services to satisfy that demand inexorably places new requirements on earth's resources, as the dense smog in China's major cities demonstrates. Even taking full advantage of every possible technology and resource (including solar power), the earth clearly seems unable to support all of its residents enjoying a Western standard of living. Lovelock persuasively argues in The Revenge of Gaia that exceeding the earth's carrying capacity will launch the planet into a self-destructive spiral from which recovery is impossible.

Fifth, I do not have a crystal ball with which to foretell the future. Indeed, the many Christians who read the Bible to discover the future and God's timetable for the events that they believe scripture predicts foolishly engage in eisegesis, i.e., knowingly misinterpreting scripture. Even if one accepts the Bible as the source of revealed propositional truth (which I do not), Scripture repeatedly emphasizes that no one knows God's timetable or plans. Similarly, I do not claim to know if humans will exhaust earth's carrying capacity by 2050, 2100, 2500, or some later date. Yet, I know that the earth does have a finite carrying capacity, that humans are rapidly depleting earth's finite resources, and that our economic models and systems all rest upon the twin false premises that both population and consumption can (and should!) grow without limit. Illustratively, even if solar energy were to power ALL transportation, the amount of food that people can grow on the earth has an upper limit. Sadly, the injunction to multiply and fill the earth, found near the end of the biblical narrative about Noah's ark, may be the only biblical injunction that humans can claim to have obeyed enthusiastically and completely. In short, we need to make changes now, while we may still have the opportunity to sufficiently alter course.